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Utö. Part 1

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Over a month ago we were looking at Haapasaari, a still inhabited small Finnish island out there in the Gulf of Finland, about 25 km from the coast of the city of Kotka. We also mentioned that this is not the only island of its kind in Finland.

The best known and the most impressive such island is however very easy to identify. It is Utö (Swed. Outer Island) in the Archipelago Sea (Saaristomeri), the area of the Baltic west of Hanko and east of Åland Islands.

Utö on Google Maps
Utö on Google Maps

Utö, less than 1.5 km wide and 0.81 sq. km in area, with a permanent population of about 40, is incredibly far from anywhere and incredibly isolated. Well, of course there are much more isolated places in the world, but for Finland and really for the whole Baltic Sea it is an extreme outlier. Perhaps Estonian Ruhnu in the Gulf of Riga could compare, but even Ruhnu is over 10 times greater in area.

Utö is as close to the edge of the world as it gets in our narrow sea. The distance to all three of the nearest significant cities is 90 km, to Turku, Hanko and Mariehamn. The closest inhabited island (Jurmo) is in 13 km. The closest place with a road ferry connection is Kökar, an outlying island of Åland about 5-7 km wide, and 30 km away from Utö. The closest point of the mainland is probably about 80 km to the northeast. In these 80 km fits in the whole spectre of the Archipelago Sea islands, beginning from large ones up to 10 km wide, separated only by narrow straits and not really feeling any different from the mainland, but then the islands begin to get smaller and straits wider, and after Nagu and Korpo the outer archipelago (ulkosaaristo) area begins, dotted with thousands of tiny rocky islets, with islands of any size uncommon, and islands supporting a permanent population — rarer still and too small to have a real road network.

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Among abbreviations that every foreigner soon learns when moving to Finland is PKS, or pk-seutu, which means pääkaupunkiseutu — the Capital Region. This in truth refers more to an urban area than a region: the city of Helsinki and its satellite cities of Espoo and Vantaa, 1.2 million in population in total. Both Espoo and Vantaa are in practice just loose agglomerations of mostly residential low to middle density areas, with no single clear center and no clear border with Helsinki or each other, and not much of an identity even. They aren’t even signposted on road signs; it’s always either Helsinki or just a specific city area like Matinkylä. They are really the only "cities" of such kind in Finland. Yet they still are completely independent municipalities, with own city councils, budgets, city plans etc., and at this point they have no plans to ever merge with Helsinki.

The pk-seutu however includes one more city, and its name is Kauniainen, from the word kaunis meaning "beautiful", or in Swedish Grankulla, meaning "spruce hill"; the Swedish name is the original one, and often affectionately abbreviated to "Grani" even in Finnish. One could be excused for not knowing of Kauniainen’s existence, as it is, unlike the other three cities, quite small: only 9800 residents. And small not only by population, but by area too; at 6 sq. km, this is the smallest Finnish municipality by area. It is an enclave of Espoo, located there along the railroad between Espoon Keskus and Kilo areas, measuring 4×2 km at the widest.

For most practical purposes Kauniainen can be considered just one of the Espoo city areas, a rather minor one at that. Yet due to a quirk of history it is legally an independent city. Kauniainen is traditionally thought of as a rich Swedish-speaking area, which has some truth to it; it has a large fraction of Swedish-speaking residents (34%), and it is indeed rather well-off, although there are also some fairly ordinary older apartment block streets there, and it is not the richest place in Finland in general (that honor would go to Westend, an area of huge villas in the southeast of Espoo).

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One of my favorite, if not the favorite, kind of places is small towns or villages in harsh remote places "at the edge of the world", mostly or entirely untouched by tourism and still retaining their original character.

From Norway for example I can remember such places as Vardø or Mehamn, but in Finland these are harder to find. Generally Finland doesn’t have particularly harsh remote places. A few, however, do exist, and they can be found either in the heart of Lapland fells — or on the outermost islands of the Baltic Sea.

One of such islands is Haapasaari (Finn. Aspen Island), or in Swedish Aspö, in the Gulf of Finland, in its eastern part, about 22-23 km off the coast of the city of Kotka as crow flies. It is an island only about 1×0.5 km large, small enough that it doesn’t have roads and cars, but still housing a unique village, with some year-round population. Originally a village of pilots, seamen and fishermen, these days it is mostly a summer cottage place — yet not entirely, as a few dozen people still live there permanently, and there is a grocery store, a church, and a regular boat service to the mainland, and all these operate year-round. The island also still has significance as a border guard post, as this is pretty much the first Finnish island of any note someone sailing from St. Petersburg to the west would encounter.

The interesting thing about Haapasaari is how almost entirely unknown it is, even in Finland. The information (in Finnish) is all there online if you care to find it (there is even a cute website, haapasaari.net), and it is actually very easy to get there — there is a regular boat service (yhteysalus, Finn. connecting ship), entirely free even, from a harbor not very far from Kotka center, and Kotka itself is a pretty significant city and not the worst tourist destination either; I would rate it as one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, Finnish cities, for its coastline and wonderful parks; its closeness to the Russian border also makes it relatively popular with Russian tourists. Yet I couldn’t find a single travel blog in Russian properly describing Haapasaari (a few yachters mention it in passing).

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Southern Konnevesi National Park

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One kind of places that I want to visit all in Finland are national parks, that is, state-owned protected nature areas having marked trails and facilities for day trips or longer hikes, often including nature spots of special beauty and/or rare or well-preserved nature or otherwise remarkable in their ecology. There are currently 40 national parks in Finland, and as of previous year I visited 27 of then. The 28th came in early May 2020, the Southern Konnevesi National Park (Etelä-Konneveden kansallispuisto) in Rautalampi Municipality in Northern Savo region, deep in the heart of upper Finnish lakelands.

The overall trip was quite a bit longer; the 1st of May (vappu) is a holiday in Finland, and since it fell on Friday this year, I had an opportunity to do a three-day trip which I was really eager to do after the annoyingly mild winter and corona spring. I went to the city of Mikkeli, the center of Southern Savo region, that I had only previously seen once in 2015 and rather briefly at that; 230 km northeast of Helsinki. I stayed at an AirBnB apartment there and could explore the city and some surrounding villages and nature fairly well, but for the last destination I chose to drive 125 km farther north, into Northern Savo region already, because there was a national park I had been missing before, and this was a good opportunity to check it out; the drive there from Helsinki directly would be about 320 km, which is too far for a day trip. (In my practice a day trip by car should be within a 150-200 km distance; this might be stretched a bit of course but not really too much.) Annika who was staying in her student apartment in Jyväskylä at the time joined me in the town of Pieksämäki, where she went by train, and then we went on to Southern Konnevesi together.

In Southern Konnevesi we walked in the end about 17.5 km, pretty much the longest possible route. Although it had seemed in the morning the weather was going to be overcast and drizzling all day, in fact by the time we got to the trail the drizzle mostly disappeared and it started to get somewhat foggy. Lake landscapes looked very beautiful in the fog, and this allowed me to take good pictures, a few of them I would even say are the best in 2020 so far. (I usually travel to see places, whenever I can, and go in whatever weather and time of year and day I can. The pictures thus rarely look really good, because weather and time of year and day are by far the most important things about landscape photography. Many of my best pictures I took near Vaasa when I lived in that city, simply because there I often went for walks in nearby nature in various conditions.)

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Vaasa Center. Part 2

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After an over three month delay I’m finally making a next post in the Vaasa series (I’m somehow very bad at consistently writing any kind of series, and much prefer standalone posts about some random places no one knows or visits; but visiting Kauhajoki in the good old South Ostrobothnia, not very far from Vaasa, helped). Today we’ll be looking at areas close to Vaasa center, but not on the very central streets. The previous post in this series is Vaasa Center. Part 1, and if you haven’t read that one either I would recommend to start with Vaasa, Kvarken, Korsholm. Overview, which is pretty much my love letter to Vaasa and has the best pictures and best overall description of the whole region in it.

Appoximate area covered in this post:

Let us start with the railway station and then go in a roughly clockwise direction. As with all posts in Vaasa series, the actual pictures were taken over two years in all kinds of seasons and weather conditions.

1. Vaasa railway station was built in 1883 along with the entire Seinäjoki-Vaasa rail section. The original wooden building by Knut Nylander is still in use, as is the case for many Finnish cities even of considerable size; although most of is rented out for various businesses by now. We covered Vaasa transport connections overall in one of the previous posts; suffice to say there are many trains, although only in Helsinki direction (via Seinäjoki and Tampere), and a train would generally be the transport of choice for someone travelling between Helsinki and Vaasa (about 3.5 hours trip). At the same time there are no suburban trains, as in other Finnish regions, and long-distance trains don’t stop at most small town stations.

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I want to do something productive, which is difficult in these corona times, but I feel lazy, because these are corona times, so let’s have a post a bit lighter on information and history. Two weeks ago I went, among other places, to a place called Bromarv, in modern Raseborg Municipality in western Uusimaa, in Finland of course.

Bromarv is a small, I almost wish to say, archipelago area, because its nature and relative remoteness certainly remind me of some South and West Finland archipelagoes, but actually it is located not on an archipelago, but on a long, weirdly shaped peninsula, 30 km long, wide in some places but narrowing to very small isthmuses in others, the narrowest being within Bromarv village itself, where the peninsula is just 150 m wide. Of course there are some islands, but not very significant; to the south is a sparse archipelago with no permanent settlement, and to the north is the Särkisalo archipelago which is an its own area with no particular relations to Bromarv.

The unusual shape, as with quite a few other formations in South Finland, is explained by terminal moraines of the Ice Age. The ice sheet covered nearly all Finland at its greatest extent, and the leading edge of the expanding glacier was moving a huge wave of loose stone in front of it. At the place where the ice sheet finally stopped this loose stone formed a very long but shallow and not especially high ridge (tens of meters), stretching from west to east along South Finland. This ridge is called Salpausselkä, "Lock Ridge", because in many places it serves as a watershed. To people it served as a transport route since the Middle Ages if not earlier, being a lot easier to traverse than the regular Finnish forested, rocky and boggy terrain; for example, the Upper Vyborg Road (Vyborg-Hämeenlinna) was built along Salpausselkä. The ridge is still used for that purpose to this day; for example on the map above you can notice a road and railroad going to the town Hanko past Ekenäs/Tammisaari. They are in fact also going along Salpausselkä, and Hanko is where this ridge ends at the sea coast.

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Suolahti (Finn. Marsh Bay) is a minor industrial town of about 4200 people in Central Finland (Keski-Suomi) region of Finland, which, despite its name, is technically not in the actual center of Finland, but more in the center of its southern half. It is located about 35 km north of Jyväskylä, the center and overwhelmingly the largest city of the region. Suolahti was an independent municipality until 2007, when it was merged with the nearby town of Äänekoski (Finn. Loud Rapids), just 7 km west of Suolahti and about twice bigger than it. Within its current municipal borders the city of Äänekoski is about 1150 sq. km large and has a population of about 19,000, including, apart from Äänekoski and Suolahti, a number of villages and farms.

Suolahti is not an old population center (here in inland Finland old population centers are generally few and far between) and existed as a town only since the 1930s. Its history is mostly unremarkable. Currently the biggest local business is Valtra, a tractor plant. It has existed since 1951, originally as a subsidiary of Valmet, a huge Finnish state-owned post-war industrial conglomerate (Valmet means Valtion Metallitehtaat, "State Metal Works", and Valtra is of course an abbrevation of "Valmet" and "tractor"). The production has been moved to Suolahti in 1968. Valtra is actually a pretty big business, one of the leading Western tractor manufacturers, with half a billion euro in revenue. Apart from Suolahti factory they have had one in Brazil since 1960; it was one of the biggest Finnish industrial investments abroad at the time. Valtra has been owned by AGCO corporation (USA) since 2004, but still operates under the older brand, and employs over 900 people at Suolahti. Presumably many if not most of them live outside Suolahti itself; the actual factory is indeed a bit in the middle of nowhere a few kilometers away from the town.

The reason I’m writing about Suolahti is however not tractors, but railroads and canals.

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Naantali. Part 2: Of the modern city and the sea

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After a look at the more touristy parts of Naantali, let’s head to the modern city center, quite close to the old city. No surprises are really waiting for us there, but then we are also going to look at the sea-facing areas, which are rather interesting.

1. We spent the night in a place called Hotel Palo, which apparently is an old small wooden apartment building repurposed into a small hotel, on Luostarinkatu (Finn. Monastery Street). This part of the city between the old town and the commercial center has a mix of apartment buildings and 20th century wooden detached houses.

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Naantali. Part 1: Of the old town and Moomins

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Aside: Of Coronavirus and Finnish cities

It appears we’re living in an interesting time, and not in a good way. The coronavirus epidemic that started in December 2019 and wasn’t still really taken seriously by anyone (including me) in February 2020 is now well on its way in Europe, and we haven’t even seen the peak. Neither has Finland been spared; since 12.3 the country has over few days largely been put into lockdown. Kindergartens are open, internal movement mostly is not restricted (as of the time of this writing only the border of Uusimaa Region is about to be locked down) and private businesses haven’t really been under restrictions (except restaurants which are also to be closed down shortly), but pretty much everything else is closed or forbidden. The government has declared a state of emergency for the first time since the war. It is not clear how long this all would last (likely months). There are still rather few severe cases of the coronavirus disease and only a handful of deaths, but those will come for sure, and the government is frantically trying to prepare the healthcare system as good as it can.

"We well, of course, survive this," stated the President of the Republic. So we will. Me (or my girlfriend) probably don’t have much to fear from the virus directly, as we’re more or less young and without any known severe health issues. But no one knows what will become of Finland. I’m doing remote work at the moment and so does most of the IT sector, but much of the economy cannot do this. Places like restaurants, hotels or stores (apart from grocery stores) are nearly deserted, most flights and international ferries are grounded, and industry has largely stopped due to both widespread quarantines and shortage of raw materials and parts from abroad. The economical depression will be very severe. It will remain to be seen how soon and how well Finland can spring back from it. The government promises support, although it’s difficult to say whether it will be at least remotely enough.

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Karkkila is a small town about 65 km northwest of Helsinki, on the very edge of the Uusimaa Region (the "central" region of the country). I visited it rather randomly with my girlfriend and a friend from Russia who was visiting at the time, as pretty much all of us love such small Finnish places. Karkkila didn’t disappoint, either.

In truth Karkkila really felt like a very remote place. It’s difficult to believe it is really just 65 km from Helsinki by road; it looks more like a dying town somewhere in "deep Finland", so in Northern Savo or Kainuu or something. The town is built around a single enterprise, the Högfors foundry, but the foundry is actually still operating and seems to be doing reasonably well, so it can hardly be a source of decline either. Of course we still loved it; it feels like more of a genuine place than some Espoo neighborhood or touristy Porvoo old town. The decline, as is usually the case in Finland, can be seen just in lots of closed businesses, lack of new construction, visible lack of young people and the overall "time has stopped here in the 1980s" air; of course there is still no visible poverty, completely abandoned buildings, crumbling infrastructure or something like that.

Karkkila area originally belonged to Pyhäjärvi Ul municipality; "Ul" means "Uudenmaan läänin" (of Uusimaa County), as there were two other municipalities called Pyhäjärvi in completely different places. There is currently only one municipality in Finland retaining this naming scheme, Koski Tl (Turun läänin, Finn. of Turku County), even though the other Koski (Hämeenkoski) is not an independent municipality anymore, nor counties (lääni) even exist anymore. Karkkila was officially separated from Pyhäjärvi Ul in 1932, and in 1969 the rest of Pyhäjärvi Ul was rejoined back to Karkkila.

Karkkila came into being thanks to the Högfors ironworks, built on the rapids (Högfors means "high rapids" in Swedish) of the Karjaanjoki river flowing from a smallish Pyhäjärvi lake. The ironworks were established in 1820 by Arvid Henrik Bökman, a court official, and Johan Jacob Dreilick, a former director of the more famous Fiskars ironworks. Högfors ironworks used ore from Kulosuonmäki mine a few kilometers to the north of Karkkila. Production started in 1823. In truth production amounts were very small (349 tons of ore in 1824, so iron output was several times smaller even), but at the time it still amounted to ¾ of the Finnish iron production. Overall 25160 tons of ore were excavated at Kulosuonmäki, which was not really even an especially good iron deposit to begin with. The mine shut down in 1888; the ironworks then worked on imported Swedish ore. Iron smelting completely ended in 1916, but the factory continued operation as a foundry working on imported iron. Its golden years were after the World War II, when it was really busy with war reparations production, and 1800 people were employed in Karkkila; it was one of the biggest foundries in the Nordics of the time. Eventually of course production volumes subsided, and much of the foundry area was repurposed, but nonetheless it is still operating to this day as part of the Componenta company, a Finnish metalworking company owning multiple production sites all over the country.

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